This one comes off more than a little disingenuous, BC.
You created a strawperson out of Buddhist theology to offer up a false narrative for your critique.
Buddhists come in many stripes as with any major religion, and there are those who take it seriously and those who go along to get along for the sake of social pressures. That said, after teaching comparative religions for thirty years and witnessing and researching the theological beliefs of Buddhists from various traditions (Thai, Burmese, Tibetan, Japanese), I have never come across one case where anyone expressed their Buddhist theology in the terms you framed in your article.
I have my own criticisms of various Buddhist beliefs, but you seem to be fishing to set up a problem that doesn’t exist. This is because there are no Buddhists who believe the world is an illusion, as opposed to their actual view which is that the world is full of illusions, and one benefits from overcoming those illusions.
You opened with a quotation that “the Buddha is credited with having said,” then your link (citation) was to a free 300 page pamphlet produced by a Japanese Buddhist organization (BDK) that’s objective is the mass distribution of the pamphlet. Inside they claim it “…contains the essence of the Buddha’s teachings as recorded in over five thousand volumes.” Ha? This is not exactly a credible reference now is it?
What Buddha is alleged to have said over 2,500 years ago is the following, “A wise man, recognizing that the world is but an illusion, does not act as if it were real, so he escapes the suffering.” You add to this that the Buddhist notion of overcoming the five aggregates amounts to being disenchanted with form, feeling, perception, volitional formations, and consciousness.
From these gross misrepresentations you set up a false problem: That a monk who remained consistent with these teachings would become a dispassionate disenchanted nihilist who couldn’t be counted on “to come to the aid of any part of this illusory world, including…other living things.” You assert they wouldn’t discern a murder from the erasure of a picture, which is of course demeaning.
I looked the phrase you cited up and no one has any idea where it came from. It’s similar to when people say, “Like the Bible says, God only helps those who help themselves,” but no one can actually find it in the Bible because it isn’t there.
I guess somewhere in DMK’s 300 page pamphlet the quote may exist, but I have a life to live, so no thanks. I did notice though that in the opening “DHAMMAPADA” prior to the table of contents the first theological assertion in that pamphlet states, “Hatreds never cease by hatreds in this world. By love alone they cease. This is an ancient Law. (5), and then a few more down another asserts, “Not to do any evil, To cultivate good, To purify one’s mind, – This is the advice of the Buddhas. (183)
So much for the dispassionate nihilist, wouldn’t you say? I mean, why bypass all that without any generous curiosity about how these beliefs fit within Buddhist theology?
Buddhism is predicated (The Four Noble Truths) on the ending of suffering, which alone is an ethical objective. In this case the suffering is of course in the arena of existential psychology. The illusion is that for some reason we feel a need to cling or attach to things (views, feelings, people, etc.) in a world where anyone can see that all is in a flux (changing) and thus there is nothing to cling to. The error for many, and I think you, is to confuse clinging with caring. The fact that I don’t cling to things doesn’t mean I don’t have deep feelings and care deeply about things.
Their point regarding the five aggregates is simply not to cling. To suggest this means disenchantment in the post world war European sense is wrong. You can be enchanted all you want, but don't cling.
In response to those who misinterpret Buddhism as another form of theological monism, as do you, Shunryu Suzuki* would reply, “Tambien kan.” This translates roughly as “to carry a board on one’s shoulder.” He used it to refer to those who only see one side and are blind to the other, as if carrying a board on your shoulder. Buddhists believe there is one view of the world wherein all is one, and another where many independent existing things are related interdependently, and both exist at the same time.
Yes, I did say independent. Your assertion that Buddhists don't respect our independence is false. As the 13th Century Buddhist monk Dogan put it, one way is to see charcoal become fire then turn to ash, but also charcoal is charcoal, and fire is fire, and ash is ash.
When I showed up at my local antiwar protest in San Francisco against Bush’s invasion of Iraq on what many claim was the largest global day of protest in history (Feb. 15, 2003), one of the largest organized groups there was a Buddhist alliance. They marched proudly behind their banner.
The lead photo in your article depicts a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. During the Vietnam war Buddhist monks led protests and were severely repressed by our puppet government of South Vietnam because of their antiwar activities. Most are familiar with one of the iconic photos of that war which depicts a Buddhist monk’s self-immolation by fire as an act of protest.
I mean, come on, man!
(*) (From Wikipedia): Shunryu Suzuki (鈴木 俊隆 Suzuki Shunryū, dharma name Shōgaku Shunryū 祥岳俊隆, often called Suzuki Roshi; May 18, 1904 – December 4, 1971) was a Sōtō Zen monk and teacher who helped popularize Zen Buddhism in the United States, and is renowned for founding the first Zen Buddhist monastery outside Asia (Tassajara Zen Mountain Center). Suzuki founded San Francisco Zen Center which, along with its affiliate temples, comprises one of the most influential Zen organizations in the United States. A book of his teachings, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, is one of the most popular books on Zen and Buddhism in the West.